“Ask a Priest: Should I vaccinate my children? What does the Church say?”

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Q: I have a daughter that has cystic fibrosis, a chronic illness. My doctors recommend that I vaccinate all of my children, especially to protect my sick child, and follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control. A few of their vaccines, however, were initially cultivated from aborted fetal cell lines, and I’m not sure if I should vaccinate or not. Specifically, they are the hepatitis A, chicken pox, and MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] vaccines. Up until now, I haven’t vaccinated my other children with these vaccines. But given my current circumstances with my ill daughter, I’m not sure what to do. What is considered moral by our Church? –T.R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: This can be an agonizing issue for pro-life parents who want to protect their children but not at the cost of doing something immoral.

The short answer to your question is: Yes, you could use the vaccines, if you do not intend to share in the evil of the abortions that helped produce the vaccines, and if there are no ethical alternatives available. This is foreseen as a temporary concession (more on that later).

Your question touches on the moral problem of cooperation with evil. This problem arises whenever someone perceives a link between his own acts and someone else’s morally evil action. Cooperation can be formal or material.

Formal cooperation is carried out when someone cooperates with the immoral action of another agent, sharing in the latter’s evil intention. “From the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil,” Pope John Paul II noted in No. 74 of his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The Catechism, No. 2272, states, “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense.”

Material cooperation, in contrast, is when someone cooperates with the immoral action of another, without sharing his evil intention. All of us cooperate materially with evil in this imperfect world. The coffee we drink might have been harvested using child labor. Or some of our tax money is used by the government to fund abortions or related services. The ideal is to distance ourselves from cooperation as much as possible. Forms of material cooperation include remote or proximate, immediate (direct) or mediate (indirect).

A few examples might help here. Let’s say a lineman for a utility company is restoring electricity to a neighborhood after a storm. An abortion clinic happens to be in the area. The lineman, by restoring power, could be said to give remote material cooperation to the clinic and the abortions it performs. Yet the lineman wouldn’t be guilty of an immoral act so long as his intention is not to facilitate the abortions. On the other hand, an electrician who installs new wiring in the clinic, knowing it to be a place dedicated to doing abortions, would be guilty of proximate (close) material cooperation in the evil of abortion. His would be a great guilt.

Now to the specifics of your question. The Pontifical Academy for Life addressed the issue in a 2005 statement, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses.”

The statement, which was approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pointed out that it is immoral for anyone to participate or approve of the abortions that provided the original material for the vaccines. The statement went on to note that “within the chain of production-distribution-marketing, the various cooperating agents can have different moral responsibilities.”

The Academy for Life study then focused on the people who need to use the vaccines for health reasons. This would include parents who want to protect the health of their children. In this case these parents could be said to carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation. Basically, they could use such vaccines if they do not intend in any way to defend the original abortions that helped produce the vaccines.

The Academy for Life adds an important condition, however. “[D]octors and parents,” it says, “have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines — if they exist — putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available. They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human fetal origin.

“Equally, they should oppose by all means — in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc. — the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human fetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.”

These points found reinforcement in a 2008 document from the Holy See, the instruction Dignitas Personae. In No. 35 it says that “danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”

A good source for information on alternative vaccines can be found here. For further reading on the principle of cooperation with evil, see this document. Let’s pray that for that day when alternative vaccines make this problem obsolete. I will keep you and your family in a Mass intention.

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